A couple of years ago, I read a blog post describing the challenges a parent of an autistic child faces at the grocery store (Dear Shopper Staring At My Child Having A Meltdown In The Grocery Store). It’s a fantastic post and accurately described the experiences I had when Marvin was younger. As my son grew up, as he learned his coping strategies, as he got more used to the world around him, our grocery store experiences changed. The sensory overload doesn’t happen anymore, but by the time Marvin was in upper elementary school, we had other challenges. Marvin, at age 10 or 11, was completely oblivious to other shoppers and their carts. So I would say what every parent says. “Watch where you’re going!” And he would stare intently at the floor and other shoppers would have to swerve to miss him. “Watch where you’re going!” “I am!!” was his standard reply and I got very frustrated. I finally realized that he WAS watching where he’s going. Literally. He was staring at the floor where his foot was going to step next. So I changed what I said to, “Watch out for other people.” Then he would swivel his head around, looking at other people as he nearly crashed into them. “Watch out for other people and make sure you don’t run into them.” This was perhaps the most nerve-wracking thing he’d ever done. It was like watching a game of chicken. He would walk towards others and turn aside at the very last second narrowly missing them. So my helpful warning sentence had gone from “Watch where you’re going” to “Watch out for other people and make sure you don’t run into them or get in their personal space” accompanied by an explanation of what ‘personal space’ is. This was not something I could quickly call out to help him avoid a collision. I also couldn’t guide him from behind with a hand because he hates being touched and jerks away, often getting more in the way of others than he would have if I’d left him alone. For quite a while, every time I took him into the store with me, we would have a little chat before going inside. I would ask him, “What do I mean when I say, ‘watch where you’re going’”? He usually had to think about it before answering.
It is very difficult, but very important to remember that my kid wasn’t doing any of these frustrating things intentionally. He takes everything literally. He can’t help it, it’s how his brain is wired. Figures of speech, sarcasm, unwritten social rules – all of these are concepts that he has lots of difficulty with. It is incredibly frustrating. Not just for me, but for him, too! He tries so hard to obey and just can’t seem to figure out what I want. I often wonder what passers-by think as they overhear some of the conversations I have with him. The things I often find myself saying are very strange. But very necessary. You see, I’m trying to expand the way he thinks in addition to changing his behavior and that takes a lot more energy and explanation. Sometimes he fights me. Sometimes he doesn’t understand. And sometimes he gets it. And those times are wonderful even if he forgets and I have to start all over the next day.
Marvin is 13 now, and the grocery store is still a challenging place. The challenge now is driving the shopping cart! It would be so easy for me to just leave him at home and grocery shop by myself. But I realized that there was an incredible opportunity here. In three years he’s going to want a driver’s license. But one of his greatest difficulties is paying attention to what’s going on around him, which is a problem when behind the wheel of a car. So, Marvin comes with me to the grocery store, and drives the shopping cart for me to help him learn how to be aware of everything around him without the consequences a car accident would bring. We’ve had lots of near collisions with other shoppers. And right now, I’m constantly giving directions, and reminding him to look around. Slow down at intersections, look around corners, stay on one side of the aisle instead of driving down the middle. And I repeat myself over, and over, and over….. But he’s learning! I’ve explained that the shopping cart is an extension of himself, and that he needs to be aware not just of where his own body is, but of where the shopping cart is, too. (He runs into things a lot less often since having that conversation.) Last weekend he had an ‘Aha!’ moment while we were navigating Wal-Mart. I kept telling him to be constantly looking around while pushing the cart, and he was getting frustrated because he thought he was, but his head never moved. I told him that 75% of looking around is so that he knows where others are, but that other 25% was to show the other shoppers that he was aware of them. His eyes got big with understanding, and he finally became willing to move his head around instead of just his eyes.
So, as my kid grows up, we still have challenges, but they change. A trip to the grocery store still takes longer than I think it should, and I still get ‘looks’ from other shoppers, but I am satisfied that Marvin has been making tremendous progress. He used to be the toddler with the ear-piercing scream for the entire shopping trip. I would buy him chicken nuggets at the near-by fast food joint for him to eat while we were shopping. As long as he was focused on eating them, he was calm. As soon as he finished, he was back to screaming. I got pretty good at shopping faster than he could eat his chicken nuggets! Then he was the 5-6 year old that was still overwhelmed by all the stuff, but too big to put in the cart. During that time, he needed to keep his hand on the shopping cart at all times, and he could earn a treat for good behavior. Having a specific boundary (his hand on the cart) kept him contained and close to me, and earning a treat meant there was something tangible in it for him. It didn’t always work, but it did often enough that it was worth doing. Then he became the oblivious 10-11 year old I described above. And now he’s a teenager, and I’m trying to prepare him for driving. As Marvin grows up, the challenges change, but they are still there. It’s important to remember the progress that’s been made, and the challenges that have been overcome. Remembering that helps to give us the strength and encouragement we need to tackle the next challenge!